Sighs of relief from Dutch and Italian cycling fans marked the end of today’s Queen Stage of the Giro d’Italia, as Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain Merida notched the first Italian stage win of the race and overall leader Tom Dumoulin of Sunweb rescued his lead by 31 seconds after stomach trouble threatened to derail his ambitions.
Nibali, the defending winner, raced aggressively on the last of the day’s three monumental climbs, and took things up even higher on the descent, where he caught Mikel Landa of Sky, the lone survivor of the day’s breakaway, and outmaneuvered him at the line in Bormio for the victory. The road only flattened out with 1km to go, but a series of turns made for a tricky finish, the last of which was a left turn 50 meters from the line. By then, Nibali had maneuvered Landa into the lead, and in the last corner he made his move, deftly cutting the turn tightly in a display of excellent skill, and enabling him to beat Landa in the dash to the line by half a wheel.
Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who profited immensely from the day’s drama despite not displaying his best climbing ability, stayed with Nibali for much of the descent and then kept the two leaders in sight, exercising a bit more caution in order to preserve his long-range goal of overall victory. Quintana finished just 12 seconds back, taking the small bonus for third place, and cut his deficit to Dumoulin by 2:10, now sitting a mere 31 seconds behind with four more days in the mountains, including two that are suited to the pure climbers of which we think he’s still a member. Quintana is clearly not on his most scintillating form, but it might be enough anyway.
The race was paced by a fairly star-studded group of climbers who put themselves a couple minutes up the road as they approached the Passo dello Stelvio, including Mikel Landa, Joe Dombrowski, and last year’s near-winner Steven Kruijswijk. Quintana also succeeded in putting his lieutenant Andrey Amador (plus Daniele Bennati) in the lead group, while Sunweb had Chad Haga and Phil Bauhaus in the break, for strategic purposes. The group was a full 27-strong as it got away, and had 2.45 as they passed through the finish area to begin the Stelvio loop of the Passo itself plus the geologically connected ascent of the Umbrailpass.
The Stelvio itself was climbed with little incident among the bigs, but Landa took the prize at the summit and Amador got free with Landa catching him on the descent. As they reached the valley they were joined by Igor Anton, Kruijswijk, Winner Anacona, and Jan Hirt, and made it to Switzerland to prepare for the final ascent with 1.45 or thereabouts in hand. Behind, Dumoulin was losing support while Katusha hit the front for Zakarin. Kruijswijk accelerated to pursue a lone stage win with 33km remaining, and the two Movistar riders declined to reel him in, tipping their hand a bit about their real role. Landa hit the gas and made contact with Kruijswijk, while Anacona and Anton went backward, looking spent. Amador and Hirt remained in between to keep the leaders in their sights.
Disaster struck however just before the climb as Dumoulin incredibly pulled over and took off his clothes to take a bowel movement. The sight of the race leader frantically removing the maglia rosa (and helmet and shorts) was a shocking one, portending immediate as well as long-term trouble for the Dutchman. The GC contenders group slowed noticeably, and Dumoulin was quickly back on his bike, picking up Laurens ten Dam to pace him back. But stomach problems are deadly, and Dumoulin’s hopes were suddenly in jeopardy.
Up ahead, the GC group continued to go slowly, with occasional accelerations, as the various teams represented there tried to calculate their responsibilities. Dumoulin was a full minute or more behind, seemingly closing or maintaining the gap on his rivals. Landa dropped Hirt and Kruijswijk with 25km to go and had a bit more than a minute on the GC group, who finally came to life with an attack by Nibali that split the group and drew out Quintana, Pozzovivo and Zakarin. The Colombian did not appear to be on a great day by any means, but once the group was formed the pace went up enough to expand the gap on Dumoulin to nearly two minutes.
With 21km left Nibali fired out at the group, with Quintana responding first, but the quartet were effectively together over the summit, behind only Landa, who bagged another KOM and sealed the maglia azzurra for the day. On the descent Nibali and Quintana pushed the pace, with Nibali smelling a stage win as Landa came into sight. Quintana tried desperately to stay with Nibali, and Landa tried desperately to hold him off, on the only occasionally tricky descent. Behind them, Pozzovivo remained away, and Zakarin behind him, while several other hopefuls like Thibaut Pinot of FDJ and Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo saw their podium chances take a hit.
But the biggest story was the performance of Dumoulin. For a guy whose situation had become desperate enough to pull over and disrobe, he was riding pretty well on the final climb, and Quintana’s lack of special form enabled him to limit his losses and remain in pink. On a day when the possibilities seemed to include losing all hope, Dumoulin is still a favorite for overall success, though his margin for error just got much smaller and his body needs to stabilize itself quickly for him to resume control of the race.
Nibali’s victory in the 16th stage was notable, since the latest the Giro had ever gone without an Italian stage win was previously six stages. The Shark of the Straits restored his seemingly dim hopes of overall win, though unless he wins by default (e.g. more problems for Dumoulin and Quintana) it’s still almost certain not to happen. But his seventh career Giro stage win was a master class in all-round ability, his hallmark, and anyone betting against him is feeling a bit uneasy after today.
Landa may have been disappointed by his narrow defeat, but he will take the maglia azzurra back to his hotel tonight, and isn’t likely to turn it over to anyone if he chooses to defend it, as I suspect he will. He also has the Cima Coppi purse for bagging the highest peak of the Giro, which should be no small consolation after the struggles that hit team Sky in the first week.
- Vincenzo Nibali, Bahrain Merida
- Mikel Landa, Sky, s.t.
- Nairo Quintana, Movistar, at 0.12
- Domenico Pozzovivo, AG2R, at 0.24
- Ilnur Zakarin, Katusha, at 0.34
- Davide Formolo, Cannondale-Drapac, at 1.26
- Bauke Mollema, Trek-Segafredo, at 1.35
- Bob Jungels, Quick Step, s.t.
- Adam Yates, Orica-Scott, s.t.
- Thibaut Pinot, FDJ, s.t.
- Tom Dumoulin, Sunweb
- Quintana, at 0.31
- Nibali, at 1.12
- Pinot, at 2.38
- Zakarin, at 2.40
- Pozzovivo, at 3.05
- Mollema, at 3.46
- Jungels, at 4.35
- Steven Kruijswijk, LottoNL-Jumbo, at 6.20
- Yates, at 7.00
- Landa, 124 points
- Luis Leon Sanchez, Astana, 108
- Omar Fraile, Dimension Data, 85